It was 3:30am, Oct. 15, 2012. Terrah Dyer woke up and hit the shower, washing her body with medicated soap before slipping into some loose pajama pants and packing her bag. It was a two-hour trip to Swedish Medical Center in Seattle from her quiet Port Orchard home and she was bringing her co-worker, Raygie Mamerto, a very important gift.
Before she got in the car, her fingers were busy pecking away at her smartphone. She’s not sure what she was hoping to find — maybe it was reassurance or some words of wisdom. “I’m searching for people, the scars, I’m just trying to find out some other stories about it,” she said. “I looked, and I looked, it was far and few to find any actual information or stories about anyone who actually donated a kidney while living.”
Living-donor kidney-transplant stories don’t happen every day. People are on long waiting lists for organs and when organs do arise, they have to be a perfect match. In the U.S., 3,565 people are waiting for a heart; 1,189 people are waiting for a pancreas; 15, 717 are waiting for a liver; and 95,438 are waiting for a kidney.
And then there are serendipitous situations where a friend wants to help another friend and finds out they can.
You might say Mamerto is one of the lucky ones.
At 11pm on Sept. 11, 2011, he fell asleep at the wheel, flipped his car and rolled into his neighbor’s front yard five minutes away from his parents’ home in Puyallup where he was living. He’s lucky he made it out of that situation alive, but the crash amputated his thumb and caused severe kidney scarring. “My kidneys were failing at that point so I started dialysis,” he said. He had to be hooked up to a machine that would do the work his kidneys could not — extracting his blood, cleaning it and returning it to his body. The process was grueling; a temporary fix to a much larger problem. For long-term survival, he needed a new kidney.
Many of his family members were tested, but none of them were a match. While he waited for a kidney, he expended most of the energy he could muster just making it to work within the pristine white walls of the Apple store at the Tacoma Mall.
In April, Mamerto was finally ready to tell his co-workers why he looked so pale, why his eyes were always tired and why he was always absent from social events, like happy hour after work. He wrote a speech and had his closest loved ones read it into webcams. Then he edited the “pieces” of his story and played the video at a staff meeting.
“I didn’t want to be boring. I can say it to you no matter what, but if I’m going to show you, I might as well do it in an artistic and creative way. And why not show that I wasn’t alone, that they didn’t have to worry about me, people would know that I had a support system,” he said.
Dyer, a 26-year-old mobile technician at Apple, saw the video as her calling. She wasn’t a close friend of Mamerto and didn’t know him outside work, but she knew she wanted to try to help. She remembered when she was 17 and was watching a “Law and Order” episode about people getting murdered and selling kidneys.
The end of the episode featured a startling true fact: It read something like, “15,000 people die in America every year from kidney failure and the majority of humans don’t use their one kidney to its full potential,” she said. It was at that moment, a decade ago, that Dyer knew if the situation arose she would donate a kidney if she could. Now the mother of a 3-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter, she knew that time was now.
She secretly went through three months of testing to see if her kidney would be a good match for Mamerto. She didn’t want to tell anyone in case it wasn’t. Only the managers at Apple were aware because the testing was so time consuming, Mamerto was covering Dyer’s shifts at work, not knowing why.
“I was so oblivious, at this point I was focused on getting my life together, and at this point I had told people so I was planning on living with this kidney disease or dialysis, because the average length to get a kidney from a deceased donor is about five years.”
In late August, Dyer got the call that she was approved to be a donor for Mamerto. There are seven levels of compatibility for transplants. Dyer was a perfect match.
In early September 2012, Dyer asked Mamerto to meet her at the IHOP off 72nd Street. Over pumpkin pancakes, she told him her sweet news.
“I didn’t really know how to react,” said Mamerto.
Dyer remembers how stunned he was. “Not to be rude, but yeah, your face was like ‘I have no words.’”
It’s not every day a co-worker offers such a gift.
On Sept. 9, almost exactly a year after Mamerto’s accident, Dyer stood up in front of about 100 Apple employees to share the news. There was a pause. And then clapping and people began to stand one by one. Soon everyone was standing.
“I feel like I give a lot of love into the world, I have a lot of optimism and energy, I have this huge big heart and I always knew I had this big heart, but it was that night that I felt like I was getting it back just as much as I was giving it to the world … it was literally life-shaking,” she said.
Dyer gave Mamerto a kidney on Oct. 15 — arguably one of the biggest days in both of their lives. The surgery was successful and the two recovered next door to each other in the hospital.
Today they feel like family — they even spent Thanksgiving together.
Mamerto gave her a silver necklace with a kidney-shaped pendant dangling from it.
Despite not finding other personal stories online the morning of the surgery, Dyer was reassured that this was fate. “The whole time it was just this overwhelming feeling of being in the right spot … I’m not a very religious person, but I thought this (quote) was inspiring: ‘When I stand before God and he asks me what did I give, I want to say I gave all I could.’
“The day after the surgery my whole mentality switched; maybe if people knew more about this experience, and about this process, maybe more people would be willing to donate,” said Dyer.
She is sharing her story now perhaps in hope that when a potential donor now Googles “live kidney transplant” her experience pops up. Maybe their story will offer reassurance or some words of wisdom.
Benefits to Being a Kidney Donor
- You can live a perfectly normal life with just one kidney.
- Kidney donors tend to have higher self-esteem and an increased sense of purpose. Almost all donors state that they are glad they donated years afterward.
- Should anything happen to a donor’s remaining kidney, the donor would be moved to top of the waiting list.
- Pregnancy after donation is possible but is usually not recommended for at least six months.
Top photo by Ethan Chung